BREAKTHROUGHS BLOG

February 6, 2017

Research Roundup: Genetic mutations and innovative ways to package food aid

Kat Kelley
Senior Program Assistant
GHTC

In this regular feature on Breakthroughs, we highlight some of the most interesting reads in global health research from the past week.

Scientists have identified a gene that stops tuberculosis (TB) from mutating and becoming resistant to antibiotics. Researchers at Centro Nacional de Biotecnología in Madrid and the University of Sussex in Brighton individually deactivated each of the 11,000 genes that make up the TB bacterium, and tested the modified strains against an antibiotic commonly used to treat the disease. The study revealed that the NucS gene, which produces an enzyme that repairs DNA, significantly reduces the frequency of genetic mutations, and consequently, the development of antibiotic resistance. As drug-resistant strains of TB have been reported in more than 100 countries, this discovery could pave the way for improved diagnosis and treatment, making it easier for clinicians and researchers to predict which cases of TB will develop resistance.

During humanitarian crises, USAID can deliver supplies from its shipping and logistics facility in Miami, Florida, to Miami International Airport within two hours (Photo: US Department of Agriculture/Lance Cheung).
During humanitarian crises, USAID can deliver supplies from its shipping and logistics facility in Miami, Florida, to Miami International Airport within two hours (Photo: US Department of Agriculture/Lance Cheung).

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) is the largest donor of food aid worldwide, spending US$1.5 billion on wheat, sorghum, rice, and other edible commodities annually. As the food travels around the world, an estimated 1 percent is lost to spoilage, which amounts to 10,000 tons of food worth $15 million. Now, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are exploring new ways to package the food to avert spoilage and are testing eight different bags of varying sizes and materials to determine their ability to protect against humidity, water damage, and pests. One model has a completely airtight liner that resists moisture, while another uses a biopesticide that stops insects from reproducing, rather than killing them. The research team is also investigating the use of an airtight liner for the shipping containers, rather than the bags themselves. The final results and recommendations will be available this summer.

Gene drives, a promising technique for eliminating mosquitoes and eradicating mosquito-borne diseases, may be stymied by evolution. The novel method involves genetically modifying mosquitoes by introducing an unusually dominant genetic mutation that is passed on to the insects’ offspring, overtaking an entire population of mosquitoes within a few generations. To combat malaria, Zika, and other mosquito-borne diseases, scientists have engineered mosquitoes whose offspring are infertile, and initial trials suggest that gene drives could be a breakthrough in vector control. However, additional research indicates that as these manmade genetic mutations spread through a population, so too do natural mutations that counteract the effect. Furthermore, there is an immense amount of genetic variation among mosquitoes, which limits the potential targets for gene drives. To overcome this, some researchers are introducing multiple genetic mutations at once, however, it remains to be seen whether the manmade or natural mutations will be more powerful.

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